30 Years

Feb 24, 2019

As I sit here under the watchful eye of five orange clad bobbleheads and reflect on the Flying Illini 30th anniversary reunion from this weekend, my first thought is - 30 YEARS??!!

Man that's a long time. I don't know where it's gone to be honest. That's like from the beginning of World War I to the end of World War II. From Apollo 13 to the new Millennium. From Lou Henson's first season in Champaign to Dee, Deron, and Luther. Mind blowing.

We've done the reunion thing six times now, but to a man everyone in attendance agreed this one was extra special. It was the first time the entire roster was present and accounted for. There was always some conflict that prevented one player or another from returning for prior reunions, but all the stars aligned this weekend - literally. Give Rod Cardinal, Lee Zerrusen and the Varsity-I Association a ton of credit here - they went above and beyond to ensure this event was such a smashing success. So for that let me use this space to say a heartfelt thank you.

Watching yourself on the scoreboard wheel while walking out onto Lou Henson Court to the cheers of 15000 people? Pretty dang cool. But sitting around a dinner table and sharing memories with the likes of Kenny Battle, Steve Bardo, and Nick Anderson? Well that's priceless.

My memories of the 1988-1989 season are forever crystalline. Putting on the uniform for the first time (I mean - are you kidding me??). The end of the bench walk-on celebration dances. Discovering that I had exact same shoe size as Nick Anderson and proudly wearing his hand me downs. Getting high fives from everyone on the team after dunking once during a drill during practice. Missing out on the dog pile after Nick beat Indiana because I had a test the next day and had traded out of that road trip for what ended up being a stupid loss at Purdue. The locker room after the Georgia Tech game. I could make this entire column just a long list of memories - but that would be terribly self-indulgent. It was kind of strange to have your peers become your heroes right in front of you, but for me that's kind of what that magical season was all about.

Yet somehow I've always viewed the experience in a vacuum - not fully appreciating the impact of what this team did to establish the Illinois program we know today. This weekend changed that for me. For this unforgettable collection of players - 30 years is but a blip to our fanbase. The Flyin' Illini are to Illini Nation what the 1985 Bears are to the city of Chicago. The work ethic, the personalities of the team and its coach, the position-less style of play - all meshed to produce a team that will never lose its place in Illini history. 30 years later and a table of KB, KG, Nick, and the boys signing autographs still creates a two hour line of star struck fans proudly clutching vintage Flyin' Illini schedule posters and T-shirts.

If Brad Underwood is ultimately successful in restoring this program to something at least approaching 1989 levels, then add one more assist to the Flyin' Illini team stats. After the game yesterday, Underwood addressed the reunion attendees and recounted his early days in the coaching profession. He recalled the impression the Flyin' Illini made on him as he was just getting started as a coach and how much we still resonated throughout the state when he served as an assistant coach at Western Illinois in the early 90's. That impression, he went on to say, stuck with him throughout his career and was a major factor in him taking the job when Josh Whitman offered it to him two years ago. He had seen what this program could be - what it should be - and he knew he wanted to get it there again.

Those words really drove it home for me. This team of which I was so fortunate to be a part remains so much more than just a catchphrase on a t-shirt. We are forever stitched deep into the fabric of the Illinois program. We created a standard by which every Illini team moving forward has been and will continue to be measured. Even in the midst of this now eight year NCAA tournament drought Illinois basketball fans still expect this team to reside in the upper echelon of the Big Ten Conference and the country - because of the Flyin' Illini.

That I played the most microscopic of roles in helping to create this legacy remains surreal to me to this day, because for the most part I enjoyed that season in the same way as everyone else - as a huge fan. I just happened to have the best seat in the house most nights. So let me finish by echoing the sentiments of every other Illinois fan out there by saying once again - thanks for the memories guys.


Hoppy on February 25 @ 12:33 AM CST

Thanks for the write-up! Love your stuff Walkon!

Any way you can talk to Bardo about being overly “unbiased” towards us when he is commentating our games? He tries too hard to be neutral and actually comes off as pro-Illini opponent and anti-Illini.

I know he can’t be a homer, but I think those guys out on the court deserve some neutrality. I’ve heard he has some beef with the school/someone at the school but those players shouldn’t catch the brundt of that beef through his commentating.

It’s become a common thing that I’ve heard fans, both in person and on the web, voice as a frustration.

Illinimac68 on February 25 @ 03:24 AM CST

Bardo was perfectly fine as a commentator Saturday. He's no more anti-Illini than Kellogg is anti-Buckeye or Robbie Hummel is anti-Purdue. If anything he's very careful, if he's critical of a particular play by an Illini player, to say that ordinarily the player has talent. If fans think otherwise that's their problem.

PapaDels4me on February 25 @ 09:20 AM CST

I don't personally think that Bardo is anti-Illini, I just think he is boring. He is so busy being neutral that I don't think he adds anything. Give me Crispin any day. Just my take

Walkon on February 25 @ 12:31 PM CST

I actually spoke with Bardo about this exact perception on Friday night. There really is no beef as far as I know, but he is well aware of the fine line he has to walk. He said he has to fight every game to avoid using “we” during broadcasts- and was sure he would accidentally drop one on Saturday.

Ultimately he feels like it’s tough for him to win either way with fans when he calls Illini games and so he tends to rely on his broadcasting peers to give him useful feedback on how well he is maintaining a professional balance.

Hoppy on February 26 @ 03:07 PM CST

Maybe he should stop doing Illini games then. (Not said with any animosity at all) It might make him a better broadcaster since he won’t have to focus on walking a fine line and can focus on improving his skills as a broadcaster.

I’m sure it’s not his call, but it could help keep him out of the rock and hard place he finds himself in.

I know some posters will come on and say “Bardo is fine, if fans have an issue, that’s their problem” but I’ve seen/heard too many complaints from fans (way more than the other side of the argument) to dismiss it. (Mostly on Loyalty and during viewing parties)

Most of the complaints coming in real life (non Loyalty) are completely unprovoked by me or anyone else and these people don’t follow the Illini very heavily.

One such person actually asked who the homer announcer was for the other team and wanted to mute the broadcast. They were quite surprised when I told them it was Bardo.

Anyway, just thought I’d throw it out there.


Gary48 on February 25 @ 10:47 AM CST

Robert, thanks for sharing. Sorry you missed the Indiana game. That was the first sporting event I remember recording because we were out that night. I vividly remember watching the game after putting the children to bed and muffling my screams when Nick’s shot went in. As for Bardo, we need to give him a break- he’s doing the best he can to walk a tightrope.

Bear8287 on February 25 @ 12:02 PM CST

Thanks so much for the write-up and to the Flyin' Illini for the memories.

Even in the midst of this now eight year NCAA tournament drought

Hey, it might feel that long, but please don't make it worse than it already is :-D (and hopefully that's not some sort of prediction. :-0).

Walkon on February 25 @ 12:22 PM CST

Whoops - and yikes! Not sure how I landed on 8 years there - thanks for the correction Bear!

tgb on February 25 @ 07:07 PM CST

My wife and I took my parents to Seattle for the Final Four. My dad was a 30 year season football holder, but also loved anything Illini, including basketball. At the time I didn't realize 2 months later he would be diagnosed with ALS, and would be dead within 2 years. When I think of the flying Illini, it brings a special meaning to me because I had the chance to share their great season with my dad. That team will always hold a special place in my heart. GO ILLINI!!

HiggsBoson on February 25 @ 08:06 PM CST

Great stuff. Thank you.

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